• 29 October 1897
  •  Rheydt [now Mönchengladbach], Germany

Joseph Goebbels


Josef Goebbels, the man who almost single-handedly developed the field of propaganda into an art form, would, for a day, be the leader of World War II Germany. Goebbels was born in the German Rhineland to strict Catholic parents. He was short, standing at just under 5' 6", of small stature and skinny, and had a sharp, prominent nose and an oily, sallow complexion. He was rejected by the German army in World War I on the basis of being a cripple, specifically, he had a club foot for which he wore a brace, contracted after a bout of osteomyelitis. After Germany was defeated, Goebbels joined the National Socialist Workers Party, more infamously known as the Nazi party, which opposed the democratic Weimar Republic that had been set up to govern Germany. Because of his impressive oratorical skills and uncanny ability to slant arguments to his view, Goebbels was considered an ideal leader in the Nazi party. It was there that he met Hitler in 1925. Though they both shared a hatred of Jews, Goebbels, a dedicated socialist, initially tried to expel the relatively capitalistic Hitler, who he saw as simply an opportunist. He would change his tune, however, when Hitler rose in rank to become Nazi leader. Hitler rewarded Goebbels with a post as Nazi district leader of Berlin, where he would wage year-round political campaigns that eventually drained the organization of virtually all of its funds. He met and married divorcée Magda Quandt around this time. Though their membership grew, the Nazis didn't manage to attract a sizable enough number of voters - especially in Berlin - to attain any kind of legitimate political power, due to both the rebounding German economy and a distrust of the gang of street thugs within the Nazi party called the Sturm Abteilung (SA). However, after the US stock market crashed in 1929, the European economies took a tremendous hit, and the resulting worldwide economic depression hit Germany especially hard. The dire economic straits of many Germans were tailor-made for a demagogue like Hitler, and, slowly, he began to take power; first as Chancellor in 1933, then as Führer in 1934. Goebbels was named minister of entertainment and propaganda, a position that gave him have sole discretion as to what books, magazines, films, radios, newspapers, etc., could print, say, or show. Knowing the media power where the influencing of people was concerned, he searched for a director to place as the head of UFA, Germany's leading film studio. In a famous meeting, he offered the position to respected German director Fritz Lang, who tried to excuse himself by saying that he had Jewish grandparents, to which Goebbels curtly replied, "We will decide who is Jewish!" Lang promptly fled the country and Goebbels settled on a rising female director, Leni Riefenstahl, as the "official" Nazi filmmaker. She directed two documentaries on the party's Nuremburg rallies of 1932 and 1933. The first was disowned by Riefenstahl because of the little time she had to prepare and the fact that it was never shown publicly because the film featured Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, who along with many SA leaders, was murdered by the Nazi high command when they moved against the SA, just after the film was completed. Their second attempt, on which Goebbels assisted Riefenstahl extensively, is perhaps the most famous propaganda film ever made: Triumph of the Will (1935). It took almost a year to prepare from the miles upon miles of footage shot. It was a success worldwide, but was not particularly popular in Germany at the time. Goebbels then commissioned Riefenstahl to shoot the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which the Nazi leadership assumed would be dominated by German athletes. The Germans did win the total medal counts, but African-American sprinter Jesse Owens shattered the myth of Aryan dominance by winning gold medals in four different events - more than any other competitor - and was idolized by the German crowds. After World War II broke out, Goebbels was responsible for creating a massive propaganda body of work by the German government, much of which still remains recorded. He was known to use almost anything for propaganda purposes, such as posters from French and German movies with Jewish stars as examples of the "typical Jew." Even when Germany was crumbling in 1945 and the Allies demanded unconditional surrender, Goebbels used that as a motivational tool to demonstrate that every German needed to fight or face destruction. As Allied forces began to advance toward Germany, a paranoid and rapidly deteriorating Hitler had many of his assistants executed or imprisoned, but Goebbels was given the title of "Defender of Berlin." Hitler committed suicide by gunshot on April 30, leaving Goebbels as the next in command to take over the faltering government, which, by then, controlled only a small part of Berlin. As both Soviet forces on one side and American and British forces on the other closed in on the capital, Goebbels was well aware of the fate he would meet if he were captured alive. On May 1, 1945, he reluctantly endorsed the plan his wife had conjured, which she had communicated to Albert Speer, and permitted her to drug their six children with morphine and proceed to poison them to death through the administration of a cyanide capsule. Later that day, after requesting a moment of privacy with his wife from the onlooking SS soldiers, he shot her in head, as they had also planned, and then took his own life within seconds. Soviet troops, who Goebbels had always boasted would never get to Berlin, found him and his wife partially burnt and unburied outside the Fuhrerbunker. He was survived only by a stepson from Magda's first marriage.